Compassion Strengths

Workshops, consultations, education and support for care givers.

Conscious Breathing

Conscious breathing, energy, Qigong,

Breath and Energy

The realization that breath and energy are uniquely intertwined is certainly no secret. Particularly today as social workers are turning to practices such as Yoga and Tai-Chi to manage their energy, it is becoming common place knowledge that the way in which we breathe has a profound effect upon the quantity and quality of our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy.

Physical Energy

As I often like to say in my compassion fatigue seminars; “breath IS energy.” Nothing has as great and direct impact upon physical energy than the way in which we breathe. Oxygen is essential for energy and the way in which we breathe affects not only the amount of oxygen we take into our bodies but also how that oxygen is utilized. From “The Way of Qigong: The Art and Science of Chinese Healing” Kenneth Cohen states: “Oxygen delivery depends more on the quality of breathing – ease, grace and efficiency – than the quantity of air forced into the lungs with each cycle of respiration.”

Even knowing better, most people breathe primarily from their chest or the upper portion of the lungs in short, shallow breaths in what Cohen calls: “The Hyperventilation Syndrome.” This style of breathing results in decreased levels of oxygen and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the body that affects not only the quantity of energy available to us but also the quality. This short, shallow, uneven style of breathing is intimately connected with hyper-activation of the sympathetic nervous system and chaotic heart rate variability associated with chronic stress and compassion fatigue.

Emotional Energy

Emotions really are energy in motion. Anybody who has worked with clients suffering from anxiety and panic attacks knows the direct and immediate effect breathing can have upon our emotional state. In fact it is a two way street; emotions have an effect upon our breathing, and breathing has an effect upon our emotions.

Take a moment to reflect upon the way in which you breathe in different emotional states. Anxiety and panic are the most obvious – short, shallow, rapid breathing. What about anger or rage? Can you imagine an explosive quality to the breath/energy that is tightly trapped in the chest until it is violently released? How about depression? Have you noticed that you hold in your breath and energy when feeling significantly depressed?

One of the most important things we can do to gain greater control over our physical and emotional energy is to become more mindful of how we breathe. By bringing your attention back to your breathing over and over again, you can begin to make the connection between varying physical and emotional energy states and your breathing. You will also be in a position to directly and immediately intervene when you first begin to experience low or poor quality physical energy and/or distressing emotions.

Mental Energy

“Just as physical energy is the fundamental fuel for emotional compentencies, so it is the fuel for mental skills. Nothing so interferes with performance and engagement as the inability to concentrate on the task at hand;”

 - The Power of Full Engagement: Jim Loehr, and Tony Swartz

Does breathing affect mental energy? Yes, directly and immediately. From the Psychology and Physiology of Breathing Drs. Fried and Grimaldi noted that while the brain comprises only 2 percent of the body’s weight it consumes more than 20 percent of its available oxygen. They state: “Rapid breathing reduces brain blood flow, while slow, deep breathing enhances it, other factors being equal.”

How we breathe affects not only the quantity of energy available but also the quality. Reflect for yourself. Compare your style of breathing when you are calm, mentally focused and fully absorbed in an activity, with a time in which you were emotionally upset and unable to concentrate on the task at hand. One of the things we have heard since childhood is: “Take a deep breath and concentrate.”

Spiritual Energy

While spiritual energy in our culture is somewhat diffuse in definition, other cultures and traditions are quite clear and definite about the concept of spiritual energy – one of those being the Chinese culture. My Qigong teacher in Singapore would continually tell me that Qi is both inside and outside, both personal and universal. He would go on to say that universal Qi is the force that binds and connects all life together. When we live in harmony with universal Qi we experience ourselves not as lonely, separate, individual beings but as part of a larger, universal force and intelligence.

One of the most powerful and memorable experiences of my life happened just after our morning Qigong practice on the shore of the South China Sea. As I was meditating, my breath began to breathe me in long, slow, harmonious rhythms. I was no longer the one doing the breathing. As this happened, my ego turned inside out. I was no longer a single, isolated and separate center-of-the-universe individual as my Western culture taught me, but rather, experienced myself as very tiny, yet intimately connected part of the whole world.

Conscious breathing not only increases the quality and quantity of my physical and emotional energy, the clarity and focus of my mental energy, it also calms the continual clamoring of my self-important ego that distorts the perception I have of myself in relation to the universe.

The Practice of Conscious Breathing

Conscious breathing can be practiced anywhere and anytime; in your car on the way to work, at your desk, even when working with clients. In fact, the more you practice conscious breathing the more you will find yourself calm in the midst of chaos, centered during conflict and alert and energized even during Friday afternoon!

Correct Posture

Sit with your back straight so that your spine feels long and open with shoulders relaxed, neither slouched or pulled back. Leave elbows, knees and fingers slightly bent rather than rigidly locked. Release the muscles of your neck both outward toward the surface and down along the back. Think of the muscles gently lengthening and opening. Imagine that you have a string that is fixed to the top of your head connected to the ceiling that is gently holding you up, your spine straight and erect.


Active relaxation is a state of being aware and alert to both yourself and your environment. It is not drowsiness or distraction. Your attention is both inside and outside your body. You experience a sense of effortlessness and sensitivity as you release tension from inside your body. Relaxation creates deep and efficient abdominal respiration resulting in more complete circulation of the blood and a sense of warmth and connection within the body.


Conscious breathing is more than just being conscious of your breath. It involves breathing with intent. Consciously breathing at a certain rate and intensity for instance, especially when combined with visualization, can evoke a specific emotional response.

Give this exercise a try. Just begin to notice the breath that is still in your lungs even after exhaling. For most of us, our abdomens have become frozen and rigid from the accumulation of stress that we chronically hold. Breath gets stuck at the bottom of the lungs.  Notice how the oxygen doesn’t really flush out at the end of the breath so that as you breathe in you are taking in less fresh oxygen.

Now consciously exhale all of the breath from your lungs by slowly and gently squeezing your diaphragm inward as you discharge the remainder of your breath.  As your lungs become emptier and emptier imagine that you are discharging all of the accumulated frozen energy that has been trapped as stale oxygen and chronic stress. Imagine all of this energy being exhaled with your breath.

Imagine that the breath you take in is a stream of energy that you breathe into that area in your chest you feel as your emotional heart. Direct your attention to that spot as you take in a long, slow, tranquil breath from deep within your abdomen. As you breathe in follow your breath with your attention starting from deep within your core. As your lungs open, imaginatively enter into the breath itself as it travels from your core through the center of your body/mind towards your heart.

Allow your attention to surround the place in your chest you experience as your emotional heart region. Sometimes people experience emotions right in the middle of their chest that are certainly heart-felt although not directly in position with the physical heart.  As your in-breath reaches its apex, imaginatively sense the energy of your breath surrounding, penetrating and circulating through your emotional heart with its energy and intelligence. Consciously breathe energy in, through and around your emotional heart. Experience the emotion that is generated by conscious breathing as you slowly and gently release your out-breath.

Once again, push all of the oxygen out of your lungs by squeezing your diaphragm inward until your lungs are completely empty. Allow the vacuum that you have created to naturally and easily pull more oxygen deep into your lower lungs as your diaphragm opens again. Breathe long, slow, deep, even, breaths in a natural and gentle rhythm. Give over conscious control of your breathing to your body intelligence. Allow your breath to breathe itself as you surrender to the natural flow of your body’s mind.

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